Lessons From the Front Line

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By Chris Gidez
Senior Vice President
and Brendan Hodgson
Senior Vice President
Digital Communications
The year 2010 will go down as a watershed year in the practice of crisis management due largely to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill which now stands as the largest corporate crisis in history.

While some tried-and-true principles of crisis management are still relevant, others are outmoded, and new principles are needed to meet the demands of the digital age. The classic case studies – Tylenol, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez — will be tossed onto the scrap heap as students of reputation management struggle to find the right model for the new age.

To that end, the Gulf spill offers some important lessons:

1. The tail can’t be expected to wag the dog

Often in the midst of a crisis, a CEO says to the reputation manager, “What should we do to save our reputation?” What’s somehow missed is that the best communications strategy is for the company to fix the problem. This seems intuitively obvious, but during the height of the BP crisis, countless pundits and critics focused more on BP’s communications challenges than on the challenges of repairing the leak. No amount of world-class communications was going to overcome the video images of oil leaking from the well-head. Yes – great communication is necessary, but fixing the problem is paramount.

2. The Compression of Time

In the internet age, events unfold at a faster rate than they did a generation ago, and companies have less time to assess information, make decisions and react to a developing crisis. The media no longer follow deadlines. Companies must be prepared to move with lightning speed to address situations as they unfold.

3. Society’s Rush to Judgment

To a degree, BP is a victim (as was Toyota) of the unfortunate trend in our society toward a rapid rush to judgment – to declare with absolute definition what happened, why, who is responsible, what the damage, cost and consequences will be. (As we are seeing now, the apocalyptic declarations of massive and irreparable environmental damage may have been premature.)

While rare is the occasion when such answers are readily or rapidly available, a company will nevertheless feel tremendous pressure to declare its regret and responsibility and to announce the cause, the consequence and the fix.

4. Embracing the Elephant in the Room – Social Media

Relentless and unforgiving, the online discourse unfolding against the backdrop of the Gulf spill has permanently transformed the traditional crisis communications paradigm.

For the uninitiated or unprepared, the consequence of confronting such a sustained onslaught – including, in the case of BP, more than five million tweets in three months – could easily be communications paralysis. Yet even as social media challenges corporations to re-think their response protocols, they are also empowering them to embrace these same tools as a means to efficiently and directly connect to their most important audiences. And it is forcing crisis communicators to consider important questions:

  • Do you have the appropriate tools and processes to make sense of the online dialog?
  • Do you have the protocols in place to guide employee social media behaviors?
  • Is your web infrastructure capable of meeting the new imperatives of crisis communications – frequency and flexibility, timeliness and testimony?
  • Do essential functions across the company – legal, HR, IT and operations – understand and embrace these new imperatives?
  • Do your current crisis plans – including training – reflect the changing digital dynamic?

Social media can no longer be seen as an adjunct to strategic communications. It must be centrally integrated into every reputation management plan. “We don’t do social media” is no longer an option.

5. Managing the Abyss Separating a Company’s Performance and its Reputation

Aside from the sheer scale of the Gulf spill, one of the reasons it became such a lightning rod is its irony. Over the past decade BP spent many hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to convince the world it was different than the others; it was progressive and responsible; it was “Beyond Petroleum.”

“If BP hadn’t been so holier than thou in its marketing these past years, I doubt that it would be getting hammered right now — at least to this extent. If there is one ironclad rule about marketing, it is that you had better be practicing internally what you are preaching to the world.”

In fact, those prescient words were written almost four years ago, by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, following the revelation of other BP problems. But it underscores a fundamental challenge for companies as they endeavor to bolster their reputation.

The lesson here is that it is absolutely essential that reputation managers ensure their company is able to “walk the talk.”

6. Remember the “Hayward Rule”

Deserved or not, Tony Hayward’s “I want my life back” statement will enter the lexicon of crisis management.

The Gulf spill is forcing reputation managers to modify a past precept – the CEO has to be the face of the company in a crisis. Yes – that is still operative. But title alone does not bestow talent and temperament.

Communicating with the media, politicians and consumers is not the same as communicating with financial analysts. CEOs must be master communicators – able to empathize; to connect emotionally with the public; to reassure.

7. BP has raised the standard for communications

While BP faces a daunting challenge in repairing its reputation, the Deepwater Horizon incident has set a new standard for communications response to major crises. One can find plenty to criticize BP in some of its messages and tactics, but no one can reasonably argue the company was less than willing to communicate.

Every CEO in every industry should be asking the question, “If the worst-case scenario occurred to my company, would we be in a position to commit the same scale of resources?”

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